Between Disembodiment and Embodiment

Stephan Berg, 2004

One of the shortest exhibitions that the Vienna art world had ever seen was held in 1979, when Peter Kogler showed his “Five-Minute Exhibition” in a “newcomer” presentation organized by the Galerie nächst St. Stephan, Grita Insam and Ursula Krinzinger. A previously locked room was opened, members of the public were informed that the exhibition could be seen there too, and they were then confronted with the following scenario: illuminated by a site lamp and beside a potted palm tree, a naked young man with his legs folded in a lotus position was doing a headstand in a large metal container. At the moment when his body started to tremble with the effort, a voice announced that the exhibition had come to an end. The performer was Peter Kogler himself, who released himself from his inverted position only when the last of the visitors had left the room. The linkage of ironic absurdity and the cool, precise arrangement inherent in this action also marks another performance by Kogler, carried out shortly after he was admitted to the set design class at the Wiener Akademie (Vienna Academy). The artist took up his position between the entrance and the porter’s lodge at the Academy, seated on a chair, on a white canvas. With shaving foam he painted on his temples a reproduction of the horns of Michelangelo’s Moses, the horns worn by Marcel Duchamp in Man Ray’s famous photograph. At the same time, he silently read a German translation of Robert Lebel’s biography of Duchamp, which carried on its back cover the same Man Ray photograph that Kogler was referring to in his staged performance.
Both the artistic actions described here took place at the very beginning of Kogler’s career, which achieved international recognition from 1986 onwards. However, both performances already contained important elements that ever since have continued to play a defining role in his oeuvre. In both cases, a stance can be discerned that, in its use of the human body motif and the performance medium, draws upon Viennese Actionism, but at the same time clearly eschews that movement’s highly emotional forms of expression and the late sixties and seventies attitude to life. Thus, the indoor plant and the lotus-position headstand can be understood as references to the over-sentimental hippie period—the resemblance of his naked body, head-down in the tin bath, resembles the shape of the palm tree in its pot, demonstrating Kogler’s ironic approach. This equation elicits how the body in its meditative pose can be seen as the alter ego of a plant whose status, oscillating between exoticism and Biedermeyer idyll, works as a perfect metaphor for the ambivalence of that generation of dropouts. Meanwhile, the site lamp illuminates the parallels between the two motifs, thus dramatizing the scene, but at the same time highlighting its uneventful nature.
In addition, the headstand in which the artist perseveres until the point of bodily exhaustion, takes up the credo of an actionist art concept. However, it does not strive to fulfill this credo, but rather, through the medium of theatrical performance and a thoroughly sarcastic undertone, to make clear the limits of an artistic position based on existential expression. Here, the body is not a medium for achieving a form of non-deceivable self-expression (one that, if taken to the limit, subsumes its own destruction) but an instrument of abstraction. Kogler doing a headstand and imitating the palm tree next to him marks the beginning of a career that uses an inventory of motifs that are nearly always concrete and corporeal (ants, tubes, brains) in order to show that these can be transformed into flat, meaningless, decorative and abstract symbols that yet do not so far disown their origin in the world of the concrete and the specific as to become completely arbitrary.
Thus, the “Five-Minute Exhibition” formulates—entirely through the formal means of a period still influenced by Viennese Actionism—a distancing from the phantasm of emotional immediacy, thereby chancing the first steps toward an artistic future characterized by sequentiality, dramatization, and emblematic spareness. In addition, the Duchamp performance illustrates the alternative lines of a tradition that belong to an artistic stance based on concept, analysis and distancing that the young Kogler identifies with. Lying behind this performance, too, is a questioning of the fundamental concepts of work, author, and originality akin to Marcel Duchamp’s exemplary pre-1920 formulation. What we see is the reflection of a reflection of a reflection. The repetition of Duchamp’s performance (also present in the form of a photograph), which in turn is grounded in an ironic art-historical reference, produces a perfectly solipsistic cycle which lacks a centre that might hold a promise of authenticity. The artist imitates Duchamp, who himself is only present as a performance photographed by another artist. Consequentially, Kogler is not reading Duchamp’s writings but a French biography of him, which (to complete the full measure of unreality) is a German translation. Thus, everything is only present as a moment of dramatic absence that puts more faith in the possibility of symbolic attribution than in real presence.
Seen from a present-day perspective, the skepticism directed at the idea of an original that cannot be undermined—a skepticism that in this case can be literally grasped in the hand—remains one of the significant parameters in Kogler’s work. Significantly, the codes of difference and cool distance he has developed over the years have always centered on the motif of the human body, a context that is normally linked to authenticity and existential truth. Yet even the cardboard objects from the early eighties were already aiming at a form of reductionism that robs the motifs of any form of reality and individuality. Archaic and fragment-like woven bodies are created from strips of cardboard whose serially repetitive, banded structure, and modular method of production reveal parallels to the computer works created from 1984. A roughly-cut square cardboard box symbolizes a face, its suggested individuality, drawn in charcoal, has been permanently frustrated and reformulated into a symbolic mask by cutting circular holes for the eyes, a rectangular opening for the mouth, and a triangular appendage for the nose.
These objects and symbols are characterized by an intentionally rough, hand-crafted primitivism. The simplicity of the materials, the banality of the shapes of the objects and images, and the provisional manner in which they have been worked creates a peculiar atmosphere of alienation, distance, and non-entity. The clumsy, primitivity of Kogler’s discoveries makes their inner void all the more visible by mercilessly exposing how these repetitive patterns of visual objects, that initially appear so warmly hand-crafted and clumsy, thrive on their cool, calculated, machine-like repetition.

In this work cycle, the importance of Minimalism for Kogler’s work is already evident, as is the differentiation that the artist developed from it. In 1985 he created out of cardboard blocks a constellation that shares both characteristics. On the one hand, it is a serial-abstract structure that could be expanded arbitrarily in any direction and whose momentary state shows formalized bodily traits. On the other hand, it has the shape of a human body that has been translated into cubic abstraction. This work already quite clearly shows that Kogler has taken on the central, formal parameters of the language of Minimalism and coupled them with moments that frustrate the typical ideal of the autonomy of the minimalist discourse without completely derailing it. With persistent and active ambivalence he lets serialism, absence of content, the disappearance of the artist as author, and the anti-narrative abstract nature of modular, elemental structures, collide against motifs and forms of presentation that are diametrically opposed to the concept of pure autonomy.
In Kogler’s work, unlike Daniel Buren’s or Sol LeWitt’s, all the fundamental motifs that have brought him to international fame in the last fifteen years—the ants, the tubes and the human brain motif—are not in themselves abstract, content-free symbols but are deeply linked to something figurative that immediately activates the desire for readability, narration and translation. And, for Peter Kogler this is what makes them usable. For what is crucial to his artistic way of thinking is generating symbols that achieve their own autonomy precisely because they can bear different, ambivalent meanings.

In this context, Kogler is interested above all in motifs that have a degree of generality, which means that they can be universally addressed without being too quickly consumed and turned into empty, blind symbols. This is exemplified in the ant and tube motifs. Thus the ants can be seen both as a conventional exemplar of organization and order, but equally also as an annoying disturbers of the peace or as the threatening killers portrayed in the trivial iconography of Jack Arnold’s horror film Formicula. The fact that ants have hardly changed in the seventy million years of their existence, and so can be regarded as a particularly successful evolutionary species, plays no small part in the excessive use of this motif. The implicit potential comparison with the development of the human race is expanded by the startling realization that all the world’s ants put together would constitute a biomass roughly equivalent to that of the human race.

What fascinates Kogler about the tube motif is the opportunity it provides for highly complex charging up with metaphorical content that, at the same time, can be dumbed down in use into an ornamental, decorative pattern that is seemingly meaningless. The tube is seen literally as a container, a shell, whose different in-forming in each case attributes to it a new context of meaning. The spectrum extends from purely abstract patterns, to allusions to architecture and construction that cite Leger’s mechanical world as much as they refer to the nineteenth-century beginnings of modular building in cast iron, in which, for example, Thomas Paxton’s crystal palaces or the Eiffel Tower play an emblematic role. In addition, the systems of endlessly intertwined tubes can, of course, also be interpreted as a microscopic view of the complicated system of veins and arteries in our bodies, the winding patterns of our brains, or a metaphorical visualization of electronic circuit systems, or high-speed data highways.
Seen from a contemporary viewpoint, the transference of these universal ambivalence symbols from single, wallpapered walls to the entire room seems almost inevitable. Yet there is a process of development behind this that has lasted nearly ten years. Significantly, the first works that play upon the entire architecture of their exhibition space were created after a two-year period in Los Angeles in 1989/90. With the screen-printed wallpaper that filled the whole room, as shown in a precarious but ultimately successful combination with Bruce Nauman at Documenta IX, or by turning architecture upside down, as in 1995 in the Wiener Secession, the artist successfully takes a decisive step: the creation of a space continuum in which the ambivalent symbols used are no longer images, but formulate an extensive reality, whose intangibility perfectly repeats the motifs’ irritating, ambivalent meanings. Just as the latter allow their potential for containing meaning to evaporate again in the formal qualities of patterns, without their meaning ever being finally pinned down, so Kogler’s spatial perspectives shimmer and oscillate somewhere between the disorientedly labyrinthine and the ordered decorativeness of ornament, between an atmosphere of boundless virtuality and the robust illusionism of stage sets.
The compelling thing about this concept is its structural ambiguity. In the same way that the symbols challenge us to associative, content-based interpretations that they never completely fulfill, so the spaces seem to teeter between a histrionicity that bills itself as illusory, and the generation of model spaces, whose aggressive symbolism is driven by the claim to superimpose the “brand” of the self-developed repertoire of symbols upon the whole of reality. When Mark Wigley, talking of architecture, explained that the authentic experience of a space or a place is “no less an image than its simulation is”,(1) he is pointing in a direction that applies also to Peter Kogler’s spatial worlds. However, what is really decisive is the respective destabilization from both sides: out of the serial nature of the motif pattern emerges an ornamentality that goes hand in hand with a deconstruction of all containingness, yet which, in the same breath, suggests exactly this charged content. And the wallpapered spaces, like the projected spaces, present their modular, minimalist, serial aesthetic in such a way as, on the one hand, to allow its measure of formal autonomy to be sabotaged by its suggestive-narrative setting, while, on the other, making it even more compelling because we are unable to avoid it.
Here it is extremely important that this concept, which since the early eighties has relied crucially on the computer as an aesthetic instrument, does not seamlessly fulfill the expectations of the traditional media aesthetic. Kogler’s refusal to create a visualization of his work that is entirely suited to the computer screen, a refusal that also refutes the nowadays common equation of image with screen,(2) is visible in the artist’s predilection for curtains and wallpaper, which could be read not only as being part of a bourgeois aesthetic(3) but also as an allusion to the general evolution of image-bearing surfaces, from canvas to projection transparency. In addition, curtains and wallpaper, which subsume aspects of both furniture and architecture, are also a symbol of an artistic credo that has long ceased to distinguish between high and low, or between so-called applied arts and unrestricted high art.

As a surface for Kogler’s patterns/symbols, his wallpaper—in contrast to Robert Gober’s Freudian, cryptic wallpaper—functions not as a means of pointing out hidden horrors behind superficially respectable bourgeois façades, but rather as a means of highlighting a universal applicability that can be put to use equally in public or private space or in an artistic environment. Just as the curtain accentuates the oscillation between disclosure and concealment, and between surface and volume, wallpaper illustrates the structural ambivalence of Kogler’s visual principle. Its ability to cover everything corresponds with the fact that it can always be overlaid with further layers. In its visual form it is always also part of the architecture and, qua that defining structure, is at the same time dominated by the surrounding space. In that it is an arbitrary, in-formable surface, it is similar to a projection transparency, and yet at the same time it insists on its irreducible materiality. And ultimately, like any wallpaper, it is a skin that shows one thing on the outside while concealing something else on the inside, and, of course, also a powerful sign of the irrevocable interplication of the inner and the outer. This also fits with the structure of Kogler’s spaces, which no longer distinguish between inner and outer because they themselves are always both: modular systems in which inside and outside interpenetrate and short-circuit each other. The surface patterns that he generates from this highlight—without judging the content—the world as a labyrinthine structure in which everything can be linked to everything else. What appears behind the aimless, endless, self-repetitive arrangements of symbols is the visibility of what is actually invisible, in a form in which this visible presence clearly reveals the withdrawnness of the visible.
As in the performance actions of the seventies that I described at the beginning, in his present works Peter Kogler confronts us with a hall of mirrors, in which it is not the things themselves that are reflected, but only their ghostly shadows. The more strongly these accentuate their presence, the clearer it becomes that they do not exist at all, and in spite of this (or perhaps because of it?), they develop a powerful, almost physical effect. It is this peculiar ambivalence between disembodiment and embodiment that in the last analysis concerns the author of this destructuralized world of symbols, who, on the one hand, has created an artistic identity inseparable from his own person with his motifs that can potentially be applied everywhere, and yet, on the other hand, necessarily presupposes the elimination from his work of any kind of personal fingerprint.


1 Mark Wigley, “Was geschah mit dem totalen Design?”, in: Christian Meyer and Mathias Poledna (eds), Sharawadgi, Cologne, 1999, p. 189.
2 Cf. Robert Fleck, “Peter Kogler—Eine Kunst des leichten Zeichens”, in: Edelbert Köb (ed.), Peter Kogler, Exh. Cat. Kunsthaus Bregenz, Bregenz, 2000, p. 30f.
3 Ami Barak, “Peter Kogler—Dädalus im Labyrinth des 20. Jahrhunderts”: ibid., p. 17.